Most gossiped about genetic news of 2021
Top genetics stories of the year!
At the end of every year we like to run a set of keywords through an online database of the most shared social media content to see what online articles tied to DNA have captured the most attention. And then we rank the top 10 from that available data. One consistent theme is that typically these will be the stories with the most emotionally gripping content of the past year! So, what did we find this year?
In top place came the undisputed champion of all time in the history of Merogenomics’ most gossiped about genetic news! At a staggering 32.6M, it was a YouTube link that is no longer available, but the title said it all: The world's biggest family – an anonymous sperm donor's legacy. We looked it up, and this is a title of fun documentary of a man conceived from donor’s sperm who wanted to learn more about his father. With the advent of direct-to-consumer DNA testing for ancestry and relations, he discovered he belongs to very large family tree of half siblings sired from the same sperm donor. And apparently such large families from sperm donors are not uncommon. Check out the show below instead from CBC.
Second in place with 483.9K shares was an article describing how DNA from the hair of Lakota leader Sitting Bull was used to confirmed closest living relative - 73-year-old Ernie LaPointe. The sad part of the story is that this genetic identification was performed out of the necessity to prove the relation in a bid to win a dispute over LaPointe’s great-grandfather's final resting place. This was perfectly exemplified by a quote from Kim TallBear, an associate professor at the University of Alberta: "Any time we participate with a scientist in reaffirming genetic definitions of what it means to be Indigenous, we are de facto helping to uphold their definitions over our own […] But we're stuck between a rock and a hard place because settler institutions control the disposition of Sitting Bull's remains."
In third place is the similar story/drama we get on a yearly basis of how DNA was used as evidence to point to the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. At 338.4K views, we find the tragic story of Ledell Lee who maintained his innocence until the day of his execution in 2017. Now a mere four years later, through another effort of the Innocence Project which was discussed in last year’s most gossiped about genetic articles, it was found that the DNA on the murder weapon did not belonged to the convicted then executed person. As a consequence of this late discovery, the DNA sample can now be used to continue to look for the real killer. Inexplicably, this simple genetic test was denied to Lee prior to his execution. Further adding to the bizarreness of it all, Lee’s fingerprints also did not match any of those at the crime scene, and those that were found, apparently have never yet been assessed against existing databases. Clearly comparing fingerprints in the flash of a second as we see in so many movies is a great stretch of imagination if such a simple search was not be performed in real life even at a risk of not saving an innocent life from wrongful conviction?
Next, with 201.9K shares is a story not about DNA at all, but which simply uses the word DNA as a symbol of the enshrined knowledge of “truth”. What kind of truth should you find from this particular site? Financial DNA! If you are confused, don’t worry, it is confusing! More specifically it is a blog post dedicated to a concept called “behavioural finance” which is apparently so well worked out by the authors of the content, it is used like a DNA template to teach eager pupils how to “read” a potential client’s financial motivations. We just like it because it indicates how the term “DNA” is slowly being incorporated into our cultural consciousness as an icon of profound knowledge. It is! Your DNA is your own profound knowledge of how you can exist!
DNA in human identification, down to facial imaging!
In a fifth place and sixth place, with 200.1K and 199.5K shares, respectively, are two blog posts from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Clearly, for a moment this year, this was all the rage! The first content shows an interview with a person from an international organization involved in assisting governments in identifying missing people, by focusing on DNA testing. Sadly, the most common use of DNA for such profiles are from post-mortem samples of mostly bones or teeth. The article discusses how challenging it can be obtaining quality DNA due to degradation (you can then perhaps better appreciate the achievements of the Sitting Bull genetic identification, or another story coming up about the most ancient genetic sample ever decoded). For kinship matching, closely related family reference samples are needed, which are typically from a standard blood samples or saliva. However, that offers its own challenges in being able to actually find such living close relatives. This is a bit technical so it was surprising to see that this content captured so much attention.
The second content shares another interview, this time with a director of a research team who used genetic data to create facial images of three mummies - the first time such a technique was performed with such old DNA samples. Yes, you can gain facial models from DNA, a topic we previously covered in our content dedicated to designer babies, and since you are probably dying to see it, the poster has also been published online, a sample of which can be seen below.
Adapted from https://pub.parabon.com/Parabon-Snapshot-Scientific-Poster--ISHI-2021--DNA-Phenotyping-on-Ancient-DNA-from-Egyptian-Mummies.pdf
If you wonder why these mummies tend to look so young and handsome, it has nothing to do with the embalming quality of ancient Egyptian techniques. The computer modelling was set to provide a facial image at the age of 25. Also, we suspect that artistic liberties were taken with hair styles. ;) But besides the sharp looks, researchers also found that these Egyptian mummies were not actually related to modern Egyptians, but rather individuals of Middle East ethnicity.
In the seventh place, with 168.3K shares, is probably the worst story to read (warning, explicit content in next sentence). It is of a 40 year old father who admitted to murdering his two very young children of 10 and 24 months because he believed that the children would grow up to be monsters on account of his wife passing serpent DNA on to them. Undoubtedly, this person will be battling monsters for the rest of his life over his attempt to save the world from some form lizard tyranny.
Ancient DNA solving modern day mysteries
With 167.8K shares, comes one of our favourite stories of the year, an article mentioning the oldest DNA sequenced thus far, from a mammoth, at a ripe age of 1.2 million years. This beat the previous record of 750k years thanks to the fact that the mammoth sample was well preserved in the permafrost, slowing down the degradation of DNA. Of course, this conjures up the idea of Jurassic Park, but alas, the article also mentions the age of this permafrost itself is “only” 2.6 million years itself, thus setting a limit of the oldest such samples that could be identified for future sequencing records. In comparison, the oldest DNA ever recovered from an ancient human is 430K years old, which we previously covered in our first ever article on most gossiped about genetic news.
Next in line, with 132.7K shares, is an article on extinct dire wolves’ genetics. These animals were apparently beasts compared to modern day gray wolves but it was always assumed they evolved from the gray wolves of Eurasia. Instead, thanks to genetic analysis, it turned out that dire wolves had evolved in the Americas independently of the gray wolves. The last time these two species shared an ancestor was all the way back at 5.7 million years ago. This is remarkable because the strong resemblance between the two types of wolves is now suspected to be an example of convergent evolution, where different species independently develop similar traits to each other due to a similar way of life that needed to be adopted by the two non-related species. With the new understanding of completely unrelated genetics, it means dire wolves have to be re-imagined as a species.
When genetics solve identity issues
The final top ten spot, at 131.3K, belongs to a dramatic story of two mothers from the Philipines having their babies switched at birth in the same hospital. Apparently one family immediately noticed something was wrong, while the other happily celebrated the new family addition without suspecting anything. DNA testing so far confirmed that neither family’s baby is theirs. DNA testing to confirm if their babies were switched is still to be performed. We might be hearing about this in the next year?
To wrap it up, we are going to go with one honourable mention from all the other content we reviewed, and that is a story of a guy who was accused of rape after he submitted DNA sample into public database to uncover family relations, and turned out to match that which FBI was trying to identify for a case that otherwise went cold more than a decade ago. Imagine justice being served after so many years because while the perpetrator thought he got away with a crime, he inadvertently introduced evidence against himself. This should be some sort of special Darwinian police award!
If you liked this collection of stories, check out our previous years:
This article has been produced by Merogenomics Inc. and edited by Jason Chouinard, B.Sc. Reproduction and reuse of any portion of this content requires Merogenomics Inc. permission and source acknowledgment. It is your responsibility to obtain additional permissions from the third party owners that might be cited by Merogenomics Inc. Merogenomics Inc. disclaims any responsibility for any use you make of content owned by third parties without their permission.
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